India & Zero

Lets look at one piece of evidence cited in the history of zero. In order to find it, you will have to go to Gwalior, India, the site of an impressive late 15th c. medieval fort which occupies a plateau in the center of the city. On the eastern side of this plateau is a 9th century Hindu temple, the Chatarbjuj temple, which is carved out of one single chunk of stone. It is dedicated to Vishnu, but it is no longer an active site of worship for the Hindu faithful. Just inside the inner chamber, there is a dedication tablet. By accident, it records the oldest use of “0” in India, for which one can assign a definite date (876 AD).

You will find a more detailed and fascinating description of this site in an essay , “All for Nought,” written by Dr. Bill Casselman (University of British Columbia, Math Department) for the American Mathematical Society. You will see many numerical values on display in the temple inscriptions. These are the numbers as they appeared in the dedication tablet. The numbers 4 and 6 were not written in any of these values.

The essay shows that by 876 A. D. our current place-value system with a base of 10 had become part of popular culture in at least one region of India. including the concept of using zero as a placeholder for “nothing.”  There is a high degree of certainty that the decimal place value notation was invented and developed in India from the 1st to 5th century A.D. There were many number systems simultaneously being used by various cultures throughout Asia and Europe during that time. The knowledge of this system spread from India in a very indirect and complicated way to western Europe via Persian and Arabic mathematicians. Many refer to the decimal place value notation we use today as the Hindu-Arabic number system.

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